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How to build an account list

15 days ago 6 mins read
Adam Schoenfeld
Adam Schoenfeld

How do you build a “good” account list?

For the last 2 years I've been working with fast-growing B2B companies like Gainsight, Iterable, Ashby, and Hackerrank to help identify and prioritize their target accounts.

List Builder is our new self-serve version for smaller, earlier stage B2B teams.

In B2B, your account list is key.

From analyzing and modeling countless ICPs, we've picked up some hard-earned lessons on defining your ICP and building an effective account list.

In this newsletter, I’ll share those principles.

These ideas are “built in” to the new Keyplay List Builder, but the general principles will help you be successful regardless of which vendors you use.

Account list building boils down to 3 big things…

1.) Don’t confuse TAM with ICP.

If you take the TAM slide from your investor deck and as the core framework for account selection, your sales and marketing efforts will be wildly unfocused.

TAM is great for strategy and sizing, not for operations.

​ Here’s how I think about the concepts:

  • TAM (Total Addressable Market) is about sizing your long-term opportunity. It’s perfect for your VC deck.

  • ICP (Ideal Customer Profile) defines who you serve best. It drives sales and marketing focus.

  • SAM (Serviceable Available Market) sits in the middle.

It reduces your TAM into who you can service currently, usually bound by geography, company size, and industries.

Many startups will mix these concepts and end up with a TAM list when they need an ICP.

For sales & marketing, you really don’t care about TAM – you want to filter for SAM and then hone into your ICP.

Steps to avoid the TAM list trap:

  1. Start with SAM not TAM. If you can’t service part of the market today, you do need to spend time finding and researching those accounts.

  2. Think of your SAM an *exclusion* exercise – done right, it sets the broad guardrails on your account list.Example: I can’t sell outside the US, I can’t sell to Healthcare, I can’t sell to B2C, I can’t sell to companies with 0 marketers.

  3. Treat your ICP as a gradient within your SAM. This is best accomplished with scoring (see below).

2.) For ICP, scoring beats filtering.

Traditional data providers have trained us to buy filters. This paradigm is broken. Your ICP can’t always be articulated as a set of data attributes!

Instead, think of your ICP as a gradient.

Use scoring to place each account on that gradient.

How to avoid the filtering trap:

A.) Start with a qualitative description of your ideal accounts.

This template might help:

The key is to create a vivid and detailed description of who you serve best.

B.) Use “better if” statements to get deeper.

This will help you get more concrete and translate into signals.

Here are some examples for my business: * Better if growing AE and/or SDR teams.

  • Better if using Salesforce as source of truth.

  • Better if selling to multiple verticals.

  • Better if a territory planning project is coming up.

  • Better if RevOps team in-house.

Important: None of these are required conditions (filters), but all of them are positive clues.

C.) Translate into an ICP scoring model.

Once you describe your ICP in english, it’s easier to describe it with data.

There are many approaches to this translation.

In Keyplay, scoring is a blend of AI lookalikes and signals. We think this is the future.

​You don't need to use Keyplay, but you will find better results if you use scoring instead of filters.

The same principles apply if you want to build your own or use another service.

​ 3.) Get Specific

We all know what bad looks like in B2B – spray and pray, turn and burn.

What’s the opposite of spray and pray? From a list building perspective, it’s segmented lists for specific plays. This allows you to align messaging and tactics to groups of target accounts. We observe the most savvy Keyplay customers finding an edge with this approach. To get specific, you can think about moving from Signals to Segments to Plays (and then circling back with new signals).

​Here’s an example from my business:

We’ve had some success with territory planning use cases at mid-market Security Software companies that we’d like to replicate.

With that insight, we can create a segment based on 4 signals:

  • Profile: SaaS; Security & Compliance; 50+ Employees

  • Tech: Using Salesforce

  • Org: Hiring AEs, Has RevOps team

Now we can tailor specific content to these accounts. We can share our research on the security market to elicit some light engagement. Then we can inquire with RevOps about a territory planning project on the horizon (inferred from their hiring activity). When we book a meeting, we can talk about how we helped similar companies tackle the same problem.

This exercise might only produce a list with a few hundred companies. But if we find a pattern that works, we can replicate by changing some of the variables and repeating in other segments. Of course this takes more thinking than blasting our whole list, but we believe the results will pay off in the long-term.

In addition, we can be running “air cover” based on our high scoring accounts so that we’re building some general demand in parallel.

Wrap up

In 2021 you might have gotten by just by cranking up volume. In 2024, buyer rigor has returned. That means you need to focus on the right accounts to be successful.

We've been working on this problem for years and plan to keep digging deeper.

So far 3 principles stand-out:

  1. Distinguish ICP from TAM: Avoid the trap of using your Total Addressable Market (TAM) for list building.Focus on your Serviceable Available Market (SAM) to filter out accounts you can't currently serve, and then use your Ideal Customer Profile (ICP) to get focused.

  2. Score Your ICP: Instead of relying on rigid filters, use scoring to create a gradient of account fit.This approach allows for a more nuanced and effective targeting strategy.

  3. Get Specific: Segment your account list to align messaging and tactics with specific plays.This targeted approach leads to higher engagement and better results.

These principles are embedded in our new List Builder product, designed to help startups jumpstart outbound and ABM.

Whether you use our solution, others, or DIY, we hope these lessons will help you find focus in today's environment.